This letter was written by John K. Lewis (1808-Aft1870) of Rising Sun, Indiana—an Ohio river town 20 miles downriver from Cincinnati. John was married to Lucinda Isabel Best (b. 1809) in September 1829. Writing to his wife, John describes the events of his trip back upriver while trading on the lower Mississippi in December 1854—an extremely mild winter in the midwest. He records his observations of the cotton plantations, slave quarters, and the fondness of the inhabitants—both black and white—for whiskey. He even describes being rammed by the river steamer “Ohio” in the late afternoon of 31 December 1854.
In the 1850 Census, John was enumerated in Rising Sun as a “cabinet maker.” It’s possible he had goods of his own making on board the boat that he sold in addition to those that were being transported by the boat owner. Most likely, however, he was simply employed as a hired boat hand.
Bolivar County, Mississippi
Saturday, 23rd December 1854
My Dear Wife,
I have time now to write but nothing of much importance to write about. We are now on a beautiful coast—the plantation Appion—about half a mile apart. The Planters’ houses are surrounded with beautiful evergreens, the negro quarters— “quarter lots” the planters say as we would say “cow lots”—on a plantation consists of from 10 to 20 log cabins, porch in front, brick chimneys, all in row & whitewashed. The levies (about 4 feet high) & commons here are covered with a short grass resembling the crab grass with us, but so viney & well rooted that it is difficult to pick off a branch or pull up a root [possibly Crown Vetch?]. The cotton fields are a beautiful light brown or cinnamon color & extend in some directions apparently to the horizon. The gin houses at a distance look precisely like our steam flouring mills, smokestack & all. I have not been in one. They pick cotton here from August til February, then pull & burn the stalks & plant another crop. No rest for slaves on a cotton farm.
Sunday 24th. Rain and mud. The mud here is as fine & slippery as soap. The boat is full of darkies fixing for Christmas (there is a plantation here by the name of Christmas) & all begging for whiskey, whiskey, whiskey, he ones, she ones, & their young ones. Everybody here drinks whiskey & almost everybody gets drunk—especially on Sunday. At home we wonder where all the whiskey goes to—no such wonder here.
Monday & Tuesday. Rain, mud, whiskey & tobacco. Drunk negroes & drunken whites.
Wednesday. Cold & freezing. Balance of the week warm & pleasant.
Saturday evening, 30th December. We came opposite Gaines’ Landing.” ¹ Sent out to the Post Office. While the skiff was ashore a breeze sprang up and drove us ashore. Met the man with a letter for John K. Lewis, Sr. post marked “Rising Sun, October 30th—“Mt. Vernon, November 15th”—and “Memphis, December 11th.” Thinks I, “this is a coaster.” Paid the dime, ripped the envelope and found a well written & amusing letter from Arthur. Will “write soon” to him (motto).
Well, in about half an hour & while we were at supper, some one at the prow called out, “A letter for John K. Lewis.” Met him half way & by the time I got back to the table, found I had yours of the 12th November (forwarded from Memphis). Read on down to where you spoke of “Lizzie’s Kiss” & not to Lose it, when I commenced searching the letters, found nothing, searched the envelope, found nothing, snatched the only light from the table to look on the floor: so strange was the effect of the wording on my mind. When they enquired “what had I lost,” I replied that I had not lost anything, but had been sold rather cheap.
I believe I spoke in my last letter about that money that North has. I have wrote to Howard & to John W. Spencer about it. Have also wrote a letter to Mr. Lot in which he will probably find some words not to be found in religious works. That thieving jim jelly would steal acorns from a blind son. Let him go.
You spoke of the roast pig. Wish I could sit down by your side to dinner. Have almost forgotten how well prepared food tastes. Know very well how food tastes.
I had written this far on Sunday evening [December 31st] at 3 o’clock (I suppose it was as the hands of the dilapidated marine time piece was pointing to 3 when I lifted it from the floor) when I heard Clore ² on deck at the top of his voice call out, “Back her or you will run into me” & casting my eyes toward the window saw the Steamer “Ohio” coming directly toward where I stood at a speed that I knew must bring her in contact with us. I snatched down a large mirror that hung by me & with it made my escape to the door of the boat & turned round to see the result. The steamer struck us about midship, bursting in the side & emptying the entire contents of about 20 feet of shelving, consisting of calicoes, clothing, clocks, looking glasses &c. in one common pile on the floor, all of which had to be moved in double quick time in order to get at the leaks. On examination, we found the gunwale very much split & the water soon come up to the false floor. We succeeded in keeping her afloat, however, and may be able to make the trip with her by hand pumping. the boat is spoiled as a boat & is only worth the lumber.
I enclose $3 Ohio paper that I bought here at a discount. Use it.
In the last 12 hours (now 8 o’clock at night, 1st January 1855), we have sold near $400 worth of store goods & farming implements. the sportsmen have fun here. They can go out any day & kill a deer. Those of the crew that have been in the woods tell me there are plenty of deer, bears, & wolves within 2 miles of the river. I have no time to hunt. At some landings, I don’t get out on the levy. I want to take a few days to hunt before returning in hopes of getting some Virginia hams to fetch home.
Wishing you a Happy New Year. Good night dear wife, — John K. Lewis
¹ Gaines Landing was located on the western bank of the Mississippi river in Chicot county midway between Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Helena, Arkansas.
² Chlore was the master of the river trade boat that Lewis was traveling on. According to the History of Dearborn and Ohio Counties, there were two gentlemen by the name of Clore that engaged in the river trade: Henry Clore and J. C. Clore. The Clore family of Rising Sun were manufacturers of farm implements—particularly plows—and freighted them to southern markets down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
I could not find any notice in the newspapers of the steamer Ohio ramming Clore’s river barge but the location must have been about one days travel upriver from Gaines Landing.
My passion is studying American history leading up to & including the Civil War. I particularly enjoy reading, transcribing & researching primary sources such as letters and diaries.